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The City That Loves its Countryside

From grazing sheep to secret gardens, Geneva’s urban nature is in full bloom


Stroll through Geneva’s Park La Grange on a nice summer day, and you’ll find an unusual attraction: a flock of sheep grazing on the green lawns. Fluffy and gentle, the creatures nibbling on the grass within a spacious enclosure are an irresistible draw for both children and adults. After all, you just don’t see sheep in urban European locales very often.It’s as if you’ve suddenly stepped out of thebusy metropolis and into a bucolic countryside scene.


The sheep aren’tthere to simply entertain, however; they are official “employees” of the city of Geneva, hired to keep the park’s grass trimmed in summertime, thereby replacing mechanical lawn mowers that are noisy, bulky and, if diesel-powered, smelly, too. The initiative is part of Geneva’s Urbanature program, launched in 2014to make concrete-covered spaces greener, bring more biodiversity to parks, and add othereco-friendly touches to the urban fabric.Working withGeneva’s Service of Green Spaces, orService des Espaces Verts (SEVE) in French,Urbanature built a small park on the roof ofGeneva’s public hospital and introduced various plants and flowers around the city, as well ashaving brought the furry ruminants onto Geneva’s lawns. 

 

Park La Grange, Geneva’s largest green space of 200,000 square meters, was the first to welcome the natural grass-cutters. Brought from a farm outside the city, the sheep are kept onthe park’smeadows, and their enclosures are regularly moved around to keep the land equally pruned. More parks will follow this trend in the near future, says SEVE’s head of service Daniel Oertli.“Sheep are truly ecological,” hesays, adding that as soon as next summer, other green grounds such as parks and cemeteries will see the animals grazing around. Indeed, withGeneva’s 52 parks occupying 310 hectares,there will be plenty of lawns to mow.

 

Geneva ranks among the world’s top-10 cities for quality of life — and for good reason.Switzerland is known for its environmental innovations, clean air and water technologies, recycling, andwaste-to-energy conversions — and Geneva is certainly leading that trend. Unlike many other metropolises reputed to be concrete jungles, 20 percent of Geneva is covered with thriving plants. The water in Lake Geneva is so clean it’s suitable for drinking. Everything from paper to plastic to food leftovers, even used teabags, is either recycled or composted instead of being dumped into landfills or left leeching into the water. 

 

Indeed, the city of Geneva spends from US$203,000 to $304,000 a year to keep it clean, airy and verdantly green. And the efforts pay off. Genevans enjoy their big-city living as much as they relish their countryside.

 

The Swiss like to thank the Alps for making them so efficient, innovative and eco-minded. Historically, the harsh Alpine winters and rough mountainous terrains made life and agriculture challenging. But the Swiss learned to treasure nature and gingerly take care of their land so it would keep bearing fruit year after year. “We had to be very self-sufficient in growing food,” says Kristine Gentina, a native Genevoise who works at Geneva Tourism and loves telling visitors about her city. “Loving nature and all things green is in our genes.” 

 

Living life outdoors

With all these efforts,it’s hardly surprising that Genevans love being outdoors in all seasons, and certainly during the summer.Lake Genevaplays an integral part on the city’s outdoor life. Crescent-shaped and hugged by the Alps, the lake hosts an annualregatta in June, whereroughly 600 sailboats, big and small, line up for the contest. “The race is open for professionals and locals, and it’s fun to see all boats competing at the same time,” says Gentina, who joins the contest every year. “My family owns a sailboat, and we do it for fun, without pressure, just to be together.” 


Having fun on the water is part of Genevan DNA. Residents who live by the lake either own boats or lease them, and they sail all summer long. Visitors can rent yachts, paddleboats and kayaks, or try a number of other water attractions ranging from the leisurely to more adventurous. Want to float along the lake’s shimmering currents on rafts or wakeboards? You can rent them. Would you rather opt for a posh luxury cruise with a gourmet dinner instead? Tickets are on sale. Want to catch your own dinner in the lake’s crystal waters? There are fishing trips hosted all year long. Depending on the season, the anglers can fish for pike, trout or other species, and the organizers provide fishing gear for adults and children. For those who crave something altogether different, like swimming and socializing at the same time, there’s Bains Des Paquis — a public beach and bathhouse. “It’s a place where you can meet all kinds of people,” Gentina says. “Everyone goes there.”  


The Great Genevan Buffalo Migration

Sheep aren’t the only animals visitors to Geneva may run into during their stay. On the way from Geneva airport to the city, travelers often do a double take when they spot huge humpbacked bulls in the distant fields. The creatures look just like the North American buffalos — and in fact, they are. Called “bison” in Switzerland, the animals were brought from North America over 20 years ago by a local farmer named Laurent Girardet, who fell in love with their might and vigor after a stay on a Canadian farm. 

 

Stronger and sturdier than cows, bison can roam the fields year-round without any special accommodation. Raised without chemicals and antibiotics, they yield tasty, nutritious meat, high in omega-3s that Westerns diets typically lack — a fact that the health-conscious Swiss appreciate. Bison steaks, burgers and terrine are all epicurean treats served in Geneva’s gourmet restaurants. “Although the market for it is a niche in comparison with beef,” Girardet says, “the demand is much greater than what we, Swiss breeders, can provide.”  

 

But bison also became a favorite tourist attraction that draws people from Geneva and beyond. Following Girardet’s example, other local farmers brought bison to their fields, and some even built Indian teepees on their ranches for a more authentic, American Wild West–themed overnight stay. Attracted by the animals and their unique migration story, the bison became another unconventional Geneva icon, so unexpected on the urban outskirts. 


The secret gardens of Carouge

Every city has its secrets. And it’s only fitting that Geneva’s most beautiful gems are hidden outdoors. They aren’t easy to find, however — unless you know the locals.  

Dubbed the Greenwich Village of Geneva, the district of Carouge is known for its beautiful Italian-style homes and their secret gardens. Today, Carouge is only a 10-minute ride from the city center, but centuries ago it was an independent flagship city of a different empire, and with a unique history and architecture.  


Carouge was founded in the 18th century by a neighboring king who failed to concur Geneva and instead erected his own metropolis on the opposite side of the River Arve. Aimed to rival Geneva in beauty and prosperity, the new city was settled by artisans, craftsmen and workmen. To suit their needs, Carouge residents built their houses with inner yards for forging ironworks, sewing clothes, making jewelry or tending to vegetable gardens. “The architect’s concept was to build a city with an interior courtyard,” explains Carouge resident and tour guide Gianna Loredan. “So that when people came to Carouge, they would feel as if they were in another world.”

Today, Carouge is still known for its crafty locals. Artisanal clothes and jewelry shops dot its streets while private gardens, turned from work spaces into leisure islands, still blossom inside the courtyards. They remain well hidden from the street crowds, but some residents let in private tours on special arrangements. 

Because of the proximity to the river and the danger of floods, many dwellingsin Carouge were built to spread over different levels, and some yards and gardens were set up on elevated platforms. The architects were so creative that even today, the designs never fail to leave the visitors in awe. One of Loredan’s favorites is a strikingly beautiful house where visitors enter at street level, walk up the stairs and suddenly find themselves in a suspended second-floor garden. The gardens create a microclimate where some flowers and trees last into late fall and winter. Shielded from the weather, they enjoy a longer season. And so do the homeowners. Even when frosts come, some Genevans can still sip their coffee in the outdoor enclaves, escaping from the urban maze into their scenic oases.“We’re still a city, not a countryside, but we have so many natural elements everyone can enjoy that sometimes you forget you are in an urban setting,” Gentina says. “Sometimes it does feel like you are one-on-one with nature.”